Poet's Pick April 24
Thomas Lovell Beddoes:
from "Death's Jest Book," III, i

Selected by Eleanor Wilner
National Poetry Month 2017

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Eleanor Wilner's Poetry Month Pick, April 24, 2017

from Death's Jest Book, III, i
by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849)

I followed once a fleet and mighty serpent
Into a cavern in a mountain's side;
And, wading many lakes, descending gulphs,
At last I reached the ruins of a city,
Built not like ours but of another world,
As if the aged earth had loved in youth
The mightiest city of a perished planet,
And kept the image of it in her heart,
So dreamlike, shadowy, and spectral was it.
Nought seemed alive there, and the very dead
Were of another world the skeletons.
The mammoth, ribbed like to an arched cathedral,
Lay there, and ruins of great creatures else
More like a shipwrecked fleet, too great they seemed
For all the life that is to animate:
And vegetable rocks, tall sculptured palms,
Pines grown, not hewn, in stone; and giant ferns,
Whose earthquake shaken leaves bore graves for nests.


* Eleanor Wilner Comments:
This poem is a monologue from a verse play, Death’s Jest Book (1829, first published 1850), by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849).  I think I am drawn to it because it marks, and brilliantly so, one of those watershed moments in cultural history when the topography of the imagination is in the process of alteration, when a new vision of reality invades and wrecks an older one which continues to haunt it—and this poem lets us experience that fearful moment.  This speech, in a supple blank verse reminiscent of Shakespeare’s plays, registers the impact of the new scientific knowledge on a 19th Century British poet/doctor, as versed in the science and medicine of his time as he was in its poetry.  The prescience of the imagination is in these lines as well, for they reveal awareness of the implications of new discoveries, though Beddoes wrote this years before Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859.

The serpent—as is traditional with eye-opening knowledge—leads the way as the poem creates its visionary world through the speaker’s bodily journeying; we follow him as he enters the underground, crosses shallow lakes, descends deep gorges, and takes us to what he calls “the ruins of a city,” yet what is found in that lost world ruins the very concept of city as civic human dwelling.  And the subterranean world which had, in the West, been Hades or Hell—the world of the human dead or some kind of afterlife on whose belief the daylight culture depended—is now transformed by the knowledge that the real underground had yielded up: the geological and fossil record of an unanticipated natural history, one which would forever alter the perception of our place in nature and the cosmos.

It seems impossible, reading this, not to be haunted by the visits to the underworld in the great Western epics: by Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante; but here, instead of meeting the ancestors or the damned, Beddoes’ character encounters a prehistoric, inhuman world, its proportions monstrous in the immensity of scale, and its great creatures imaginable only in terms of a world their dead presence undermines: “the mammoth, ribbed like to an arched cathedral,” and all this below and reaching up, like a perverse Darwinian tree of life, to shake the human graves in its recent branches. Though this knowledge, over time, has meant a liberation from old myths and a reconnection with the living and dying world of nature, Beddoes’ poem gives us a vision of its effect on a 19th Century European at the “earthquake” moment of change, and reminds us how a single powerful imagination can embody such experience, and permit us to share it. 

And it is fascinating how he imagines all that he encounters as itself an image held in the memory of a larger, personified and Romantic being—“an aged earth” (suddenly eons older than Biblical imagination had conceived) nostalgic for “the mightiest city of a perished planet…kept…in her heart,” expressing the emotional impact of an unsuspected history as if it were a first love suddenly revealed, disordering all.  All this nonhuman past, replacing a world of the dead with a dead world, is couched in human terms, which is precisely how the imagination works, humanizing what is alien, giving it emotional shape and weight—a darkly illuminating and startling encounter with the unprecedented.

Eleanor Wilner:
Eleanor Wilner’s most recent book of poems is Tourist in Hell  (University of Chicago Press, 2010); she co-edited with Maurice Manning, The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry: Poems, Poets, Process (University of Michigan Press, 2013). Her poetry is widely anthologized, most recently in The Best American Poetry 2014 and 2016 (Scribner). She teaches currently in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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